College isn’t ‘more important than ever,’ despite the Lumina Foundation study

Despite the Lumina Foundation’s jeremiad over the “inaccessibility” of higher education hindering the goal of making college available to all citizens, other research indicates that such a goal itself is not socially optimal.

As part of “accessibility,” the Lumina report counted students’ own reluctance to borrow to pay for their education. “Some potential students are reluctant to borrow, some will have difficulty repaying loans, and repayment costs add substantially to education expenses,” the report states. “These factors can diminish a college’s accessibility for some students.”

Elsewhere the report states: “Today, more than ever, postsecondary education is critical to our nation’s strength, and Americans’ need for ongoing learning is growing steadily.”

Other research, however, casts cold water on this view of college as “more important than ever.” Economists Frederic Pryor and David Schaffer, in their book Who’s Not Working and Why, found that the supposed earnings gap between the college-educated and the non-college-educated owes greatly not college degrees but to individuals’ possession of cognitive skills. College-educated people without skills in high demand end up, they write, “taking jobs where the average educational level has been much lower … From 1971 to 1987 a rising share of male and female university-educated workers of all ages took such high school jobs.”

Discussing this phenomenon, George C. Leef wrote in a Pope Center for Higher Education Policy Inquiry paper (No. 4, “Financing Higher Education in North Carolina: A New Model”) that “there is a growing phenomenon of college graduates having to take what have traditionally been regarded as ‘high school’ jobs, and for them, the time and money spent on college is, if not entirely wasted, at least a suboptimal use of it.”

Leef noted that for the decade 1996-2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics “projects that retail sales persons, cashiers, truck drivers, office clerks and personal care aides will be among the occupations with the largest growth. To continue to push for greater college attendance when the labor force can absorb many graduates only in lower-skilled occupations is a poor use of taxpayer dollars.”

Making higher education “accessible” to all those who don’t want to incur the costs of it drags down the quality of higher education itself. The students brought in by this low-cost, “accessible” higher education tend to be different from those willing to make the sacrifices the Lumina report wishes to shield them from. As Peter Wood noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 9, 1997), “accessible” higher education “lures students who lack adequate preparation, academic ability, or serious intellectual aspiration into academic programs that are inappropriate for them.”

Who are these new students? Paul Trout calls them “disengaged students.” Writing in the Spring 1997 issue of Academic Questions, Trout describes them: “they do not read the assigned books, they avoid participating in class discussions, they expect high grades for mediocre work, they ask for fewer assignments, they resent attendance requirements, they complain about course workloads, they do not like ‘tough’ or demanding professors, they do not adequately prepare for class and tests, they are impatient with deliberate analysis, regard intellectual pursuits as ‘boring,’ they resent the intrusion of course requirements on their time, they are apathetic and defeatist in the face of challenge, and they are largely indifferent to anything resembling an intellectual life.”

Having such disengaged students thus, in Wood’s words, “seduces colleges and universities into lowering their academic standards.”

“The waste in ‘mass education’ is not merely the time, money, and effort thrown away on people who don’t care,” wrote Thomas Sowell in Education: Assumptions Versus History. “The waste includes people who do care and who have the ability, but who wither in an educational system geared to the lowest common denominator.”